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Whistler wary of $5 million walkway to cultural centre

Council wants to see options, other scenarios before committing support



Excitement may be brewing at senior levels of government for a new iconic multi-million dollar Whistler bridge, but the reception to the First Nations' project at the local level could be described as lukewarm at best.

Council's lackluster response is due in part to a request from the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) for Whistler to kick in $500,000 for the $5 million project spanning Fitzsimmons Creek.

"I didn't see a compelling argument for spending $5 million for a bridge where there are other options available," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, in response to an in-depth presentation from the executive director of the SLCC at Tuesday's Committee of the Whole meeting.

First Nations', however, feel they're on to something, a project they say is generating buzz in higher levels of government.

"We would have moved on from this project months ago if we hadn't had such a positive response from funders," said Casey Vanden Heuvel.

He presented the bridge concept and its merits, calling it the "cultural connector" that would link the First Nations' cultural centre to the Audain Art Museum, now under construction.

"We're really trying to bridge cultures," said Vanden Heuvel.

It would also create the beginnings of a so-called cultural district in Whistler connecting with Whistler Olympic Plaza, Millennium Place and the library.

Creating this "Cultural Stroll," much like the Village Stroll, would offer visitors a compelling reason to explore the Upper Village and ultimately could link to other galleries through the resort.

Vanden Heuvel spoke about the growing success of the SLCC, set to recover 71.3 per cent of its expenses this year, as opposed to the 30.5 per cent it recovered when it first opened its doors five years ago.

It is seeing increasing volumes in tour operator business; Globus alone is set to increase the number of its guests by 60 per cent in 2014. The largest increase in business in the last year is from groups with an average age over 55 years old.

These guests are here for cultural tourism. "Most of these guests are not looking to bungee jump," said Vanden Heuvel. "They are looking for a soft adventure."

The development of a "cultural district" would offer a weatherproof and age-proof attraction of which the bridge would be a key component. Design concepts to date include the idea of a fish-basket, designed by renowned First Nations architect Alfred Waugh, at $6 million or the $3.5 million "cable-stayed" concept, which would also incorporate elements of First Nations' culture and art.

Councillor Roger McCarthy told Vanden Heuvel he thought the presentation was fabulous. But the hefty price tag is a stumbling block.

"Whether you say it fast or slow, it's a lot of money," said McCarthy. "The numbers are really big for us."

The SLCC has 10 per cent of the funding to date — $300,000 from the SLCC, $100,000 from Coast Sustainability Trust, and $224,000 from an existing mix of funders.

There are requests and ongoing discussions happening for the rest of the money, including the $500,000 from the municipality.

Fifty per cent is slated to come from senior levels of government.

"There is a lot of excitement at the senior levels," said Sarah Goodwin, the SLCC's director of development, adding that feedback for the iconic structure has been to increase the budget.

This was met with some skepticism, particularly from municipal administrator Mike Furey, a long-serving bureaucrat in federal and provincial governments.

The "cultural connector" or bridge is the major part of the phase three of the First Nations' Cultural Journey: phase one of that journey was the $1 million plus highway signage program, phase two the almost $4 million art installations, kiosks and online shop, among other initiatives.

Phase three is "having a compelling cultural offering" at a total cost of $6 million, with the bridge taking up the bulk of that budget.

The municipality has several outstanding issues not the least of which is the question of whether or not this is the best idea out there.

"It's not just sticking a plank across the river," said Furey after the meeting. "We need to understand: is that the best place to put the plank across, are there other avenues... to get the best experience for the tourist, to get the circulation, all the things (Vanden Heuvel) talked about."

The mayor added: "If there's a message, it's that we would like to have other options using existing structures, existing bridges... with several zeroes lopped off (the price tag)."

"If you come back to the table with $4 million it's a different story... possibly."